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Even before the pandemic, GPs were struggling with increasing workloads as healthcare need amongst their patients spiralled. Some have left the profession as a result.
GPs are the first port of call, a vital link in our communities, a trusted and a valued part of our NHS.
This is why I am holding a parliamentary debate today to highlight some of the issues GPs face and how important it is for their patients to be able to get face-to-face appointments.
First, the good news: during the pandemic, GPs stepped up to help deliver our brilliant vaccine programme. I thank them and their staff all for their dedicated work at the Covid frontline. We are a country well on the way to beating the virus, and largely free of many restrictions other places have.
GPs have proven resilient and innovative too; adopting new digital ways to interact with patients during the lockdowns. Times change and phone and digital GP consultations are here to stay. Many find them convenient, but not everyone.
Some frail elderly people, for example, may find that only a face-to-face conversation will enable them to explain their symptoms and seek the help they need.
Family doctors should be able to spend their time seeing patients, not filling out forms or signing off sick notes
There has been good progress in the return to a pre-pandemic normal. There are more appointments now in general practice than there were before the pandemic. Latest figures show 65 per cent of those were face-to-face. We must give credit to GPs, to NHS England, and to the government for that recovery.
But the bad news is people are still experiencing problems getting to see their doctor because GP surgeries are under such immense pressure.
Demand for care continues to climb ever higher. That is partly because as a population we are growing older; but it is also because of pent up demand from people who felt reluctant to seek help during the pandemic.
Ministers have acted. £250m was announced in October to tackle immediate pressures, promising new cloud-based phone systems; a reduction in bureaucracy, and additional staff for the multi-disciplinary teams which support GPs. Around 10,000 have been recruited of the 26,000 promised in the Conservative manifesto.
More GPs are training than ever before, but their presence is yet to be felt in local surgeries.
So what more can be done? Certainly, pharmacists taking on a greater role for prescribing role would help. An effective NHS visa scheme to recruit GPs from around the world is another must. And ministers must live up to their promises to roll back the paperwork which GPs in my constituency tells me has increased dramatically in recent years. Family doctors should be able to spend their time seeing patients, not filling out forms or signing off sick notes.
We must also get better at retaining GPs. That means fixing the problem with doctors’ pensions. Long serving GPs can face a big tax bill for their pensions. The upshot is an incentive to retire early retirement because of punitive pension taxes. Action should also be taken to welcome back retired or non-practising GPs back to help with the Covid backlog, boost capacity in general practice, and expand the number of face-to-face appointments that can be offered.
One of my local GPs recently told me: “Those of us left behind feel that we are holding up a broken system.”
So, let’s fix the system. The government is investing a record £33 billion in the NHS and this must deliver more appointments, innovation and better facilities, better working conditions, less form filling and, above all, more GPs.
Theresa Villiers is the Conservative MP for Chipping Barnet.
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